Philippians 1:27-30, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but should also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict you saw that I had and now hear that I still have.”
In C.S. Lewis’ popular book The Screwtape Letters, Lewis gives a fictional account of letters and messages sent by the high-ranking assistant to Satan, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood, who is a new demon. Screwtape is trying to mentor the young Wormwood with advice on how to attack the Christian. In one section of the book, Screwtape addresses how Wormwood should get his “patient” out of the church:
“…if your patient can’t be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don’t mean on real doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better…the real fun is working up hatred between those who say ‘mass’ and those who say “holy communion” when neither party could possibly state the difference between (the two).”
What made Lewis such a great writer, even almost a modern-day prophet, was his ability to see right through a philosophy or an issue, to find the root of the problem accurately. But in 1939, C.S. Lewis wrote the following to British monk Bede Griffiths in a real letter:
“A united Christendom should be the answer to the new Paganism. But how reconciliation of the Churches as opposed to conversions of individuals from one church to another is to come about, I confess I cannot see.”
Even the sharp, brilliant Lewis couldn’t nail down fully the answer to what he saw as a foreseeable problem in the Church. He was a mastermind of apologetics and philosophy. He clearly hails the glory of God and the journey of holiness. But like our culture, even he couldn’t seem to come up with the answer to church unity.
Church unity has become for us a non-essential. New denominations of churches seem to crop up every month. Our mantra has become “don’t major on the minors” and we’re totally cool with not debating or discussing key points of our faith. From carpet color to worship style to third-tier doctrinal differences, there are too many reasons we’ve chosen to divide, and too few places we’ve chosen to unite. How will reconciliation between Churches happen? As Paul is nearing the end of this first chapter, he subtly makes a compassionate plea for church unity in verses 27-30. Let’s walk through this passage slowly.
“Only.” Why is “only” there? Only indicates that there’s one thing that should be noted. When a wife says “ONLY buy what’s on the grocery list,” that doesn’t mean seven-layer dip, husbands! ONLY. Only indicates context, and within the context of verses 23-26 of this chapter we see that the following words will become the motivating force for Paul’s remaining and continuing, and the Philippians’ glorying in Christ Jesus. Then Paul remarks on what our focus should be, “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” This seems nearly impossible. It’s almost audacious for Paul to call us to this, especially when elsewhere Paul says of humanity, “Together they have become worthless” (Rom. 3:12). How do we achieve worthiness? We don’t achieve it. However, the Gospel takes unworthy sinners and makes them worthy saints.
2 Thess 1:11-12, “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Christ’s salvific purpose is not only that God’s wrath might be satisfied, and that our sins might be wiped away, but that our very identity and status may become “worthy” through the work of Christ. As Christ’s chosen race has been made worthy, we are all united in our worthiness. Therefore, Paul encourages church unity by calling us to “one spirit” and “one mind,” encouraging us to be “striving side by side.”
The Greek word for “Striving” is sunathleo, meaning “to wrestle, to seek jointly.” This is an important point. Church wasn’t meant to be easy. It’s a place full of sinners and different people all trying to do life together. Doing the Christian life in community means getting messy. But we wrestle together. We seek jointly.
We do all this “For the faith of the gospel.” Faith gets easier when we do it together.
Paul says a result of this faith is that we are “not frightened in anything by our opponents.”
Isn’t it so easy to get discouraged in our faith? We still deal with the nagging of sin. Satan still whispers in our ear and makes us doubt, deceives us with lies. It’s easy to fall into fear. But faith that is built up by the body for the good of each member in the body is a powerful gospel force. Notice the gravity of what Paul says about a communal faith that is united in spirit, mind, and purpose. “This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation” (emphasis mine). Paul is saying that perhaps the most effective demonstration of the gospel’s power to harden and soften hearts is not our ability to wage war, not our strength in apologetic reasoning, not winning arguments, but in the unity of the Church. The need for a united ekklesia is unmissable.
In verse 29, Paul says that a united Church in the midst of this “crooked and twisted generation” (Phil. 2:15) is an opportunity that has been “granted” to us to “suffer for his sake.” This word “granted” is important, because it indicates that these moments are God-ordained, for our good and to His glory. It is not as though God has left us when it is us (the Church) against the world, but quite the opposite!
Paul’s encouragement to the Philippian church is that they must continue to seek the furtherance of the gospel with one another. This unity focuses our mission and purpose, serves as evidence to the outside world of the gospel’s power and increases our dependence on Christ and each other in moments of difficulty. We need each other. If Lewis didn’t know the formula answer, neither do I. Yet we must labor to strive side by side, for this is what we have been called to do.